Radio Africa and Kitchen

Radio nights
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paulr@sfbg.com

Radio Africa and Kitchen is described by its Web site as a "nomadic" restaurant, but if it has anything like a home, it's Coffee Bar, the Multimedia Gulch spot kitty-corner from Circolo. This juxtaposition isn't as unlikely as it seems. Although the first thing you smell when you step into Radio Africa is Coffee Bar's coffee, the smell reminds you that coffee is native to the highlands of east Africa — and Radio Africa's food is east African in influence.

The maestro of the project is Eskender Aseged. In the autumn of 2004, having cooked professionally in Bay Area restaurants for two decades, he began Radio Africa on a small scale in his own home, serving dinners that reflected the cuisine of his native Ethiopia to groups of 15 or 20 people. Today, more than four years later, the heart of the drill remains much the same: inventive and elegant cooking that emphasizes healthfulness and carefully chosen ingredients in an atmosphere of (sometimes raucous) festivity.

Despite the arresting name, Radio Africa and Kitchen is several steps removed from Africa. It doesn't even much resemble the Ethiopian restaurants you find along Divisadero Street in the Western Addition. Coffee Bar, as a locale, is a redoubt of pure Mission District monied hipsterdom: a vault of brick, concrete, and stainless steel, with industrial-style lighting, a gigantic, heavy door, and a large mezzanine.

On that mezzanine you will find the flickering light of votive candles, for a monastery effect. There are also big tables for big parties, along with a dining counter overlooking the bar. The Wi-Fi connection must be especially good at the counter, because it seems to attract diners with laptops, who sit there with plates of food while gazing into glowing screens like hardworking controllers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, gobbling some takeout while maintaining radio contact during a space walk.

I do wonder about the etiquette of peering at a laptop, or into a handheld, while having dinner, especially when the food is as good as Radio Africa's. Much as I love the traditional way of presenting the highly spiced dishes of Ethiopia and Eritrea — family-style, on mats of injera — I was delighted to find some of the flavors of east Africa handled in a different way. They've been passed through a California filter, in a sense. Also I was pleased to find meat de-emphasized, though I like meat. If you've been to one of the old-line places, you've probably noticed the prominence of beef. Radio Africa favors seafood and chicken instead, and many of the best dishes have no flesh at all.

We were particularly impressed by a green-bean salad ($6) — really an arugula salad with green beans, slivered almonds, dabs of notably creamy goat cheese, and long fingers of white, faintly blushing radish bound together with a simple vinaigrette. A salad like this one reminds us that there is an art to salad-making, particularly in winter, when not only is matériel in short supply but the human response to greens and uncooked vegetables is at its most reluctant and in need of coaxing.

Edamame hummus ($6) was very much like the usual chickpea kind, except with a faint sheen of green. The hummus was dressed with argan oil, which is derived from the pits of a fruit tree native to Morocco and is thought to have many health benefits similar to those of olive oil. For dipping, the kitchen offered rounds of Tartine sourdough baguette instead of the usual pita bread or lavash.

Were the mushroom crostini ($6) mounted on rounds of toasted Tartine bread?

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